Milton Babbitt has died, at the ripe age of 94. I had never paid much attention to his music; what I knew about it (Babbitt advocated “total serialism”) failed to pique my interest. But today people on Facebook were posting links, so I listened to a couple of his pieces.
One hesitates to speak ill of the recently departed. I’m sure Babbitt was a very bright guy, and passionately dedicated to his art. But I can’t help feeling that he utterly failed to understand the nature of music. He was swept up in an academic, intellectual whirlwind that attempted, with considerable success, to divorce the production and content of music from any sort of human feeling. You can listen to his music, but you won’t get anything out of it, because there’s nothing to be gotten out of it.
Music exists in a sort of dynamic tension or interplay between repetition and change. Repetition leads to predictability: As we listen, we will inevitably try to anticipate what will happen next, based on what has just happened. But the composer may surprise us by doing something we don’t expect. The moment of change is the moment in which something unexpected occurs.
Now, different listeners have different levels of familiarity with different styles, so the question of what is predictable or unpredictable will vary from one listener to another, and for a given listener from one style to another. Some people find “modern” jazz (that is, anything recorded since about 1945) chaotic and confusing. There’s too much change, not enough predictability. This reaction is partly due to the fact that there is indeed quite a lot of change in this style, and partly due to lack of familiarity with the style. A listener who dislikes jazz fails to perceive the predictable elements that are in fact present. Other listeners, myself included, are quite comfortable listening to music in that style.
Conversely, some people find the music of Kenny G and Yanni very pleasant. They find its relatively high level of predictability soothing, and enjoy the relatively restricted range of change that a given piece undergoes. Other listeners, myself included, find this sort of music very boring, because it’s too predictable. There’s not enough change. (On the other hand, I like Kraftwerk and the Residents a great deal, and their music is quite repetitive. The changes are subtle, but deployed in effective ways.)
The trouble with the music of Milton Babbitt is that it’s all change. Nothing repeats, except the fact that nothing repeats. The lack of repetition is a constant, and constant, unrelenting change soon becomes as boring as no change. The unpredictable becomes, oddly enough, all too predictable.
Babbitt’s electronic work reminds me a bit of some of the “outside” moments in Frank Zappa. But Zappa understood the dynamic between predictability and change. He would toss in 30 seconds of complete avant-garde madness and then segue, without pause, into a satirical doo-wop ballad in 4/4 time with triplets and a rock guitar solo. The level of unpredictability in Zappa is itself unpredictable, and that’s a significant part of what makes his music fun to listen to.
Ultimately, most listeners don’t care about the intellectual underpinnings of music. They may know more (and love jazz) or they may know less (and love Yanni), but in either case they’re reacting more on the basis of emotion than on the basis of pure intellect. Emotion arises, for the listener, in the interplay of repetition and change. Babbitt’s music entirely fails to address the listener’s emotions, and that’s why.
I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t have cared. He wasn’t interested in how you felt when you listened to his music. If you didn’t grasp what he was doing, that was your problem. His 1958 essay, “The Composer as Specialist” (retitled “Who Cares if You Listen?” by the editors of High Fidelity, which published the piece), is available online. It’s a masterpiece of obfuscation and misunderstanding. I could analyze its failings point by point, but I’d rather go play some music.